A painful lesson in Aspen Uphill | AspenTimes.com

A painful lesson in Aspen Uphill

While covering the Aspen Downtown Mile nearly two months ago, Chris Keleher told me I should run the Aspen Uphill and write a story about the race.

I told him sure, sounds great! Of course I had just moved to Aspen from Boulder and had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Keleher is the director of the Aspen Summer Race Series and coach of the Aspen High School cross-country teams.

For the next month or so, I spent every free moment I had tossing flies in the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers in an attempt to catch trout – I caught a lot of sticks, moss and tree branches. I did not do any running. All the while, I convinced myself that three weeks of training was all I needed to prepare myself for the Uphill. Obviously, I was wrong.

My first attempt up Aspen Mountain in mid-July was an eye-opening, lung-busting shocker. I used to run trails a lot in Boulder, so I’d be fine in the Uphill, I thought. I didn’t factor in the year and a half sabbatical I took from running to pursue my other hobby. Beer drinking, much to my dismay, makes you fat and slow – not a good combination for running up steep mountains.

The Summer Road, which is the race course, is like a never-ending nightmare. It’s more than four miles and 3,300 vertical feet of perpetually steep, dusty, uphill running. Luckily, on my first few tries up Hell road, I mean Summer Road, I had enough sense to stop before my chest exploded.

What am I doing? This was a frequent question I asked myself over the next few weeks. But, I told Keleher that I’d do the race and write a story. I couldn’t back down.

On Saturday, I found myself standing at the starting line just above the gondola alongside 133 fellow racers – a new race record for entrants. There were runners and hikers, and competitors of all ages. Please just don’t let any hikers beat me, I silently pleaded. Several hikers beat me.

In the beginning of the race, I tried to ignore everybody around me and get into a rhythm. After a man in his 60s with tree-trunk legs rippling with muscles passed me, however, I became a little distracted and a lot discouraged. After all, I was running and he was hiking. Eventually, I alternated running and hiking, which was the routine most everybody used.

Head down, sweat dripping off the rim of my hat, I just could not get ahead of this pack of speedy hiking freaks. I’m taking tiny running steps, my legs are full of lead. The hikers are taking long, smooth, fast strides. Who are these people? I wonder. I feel like I’m in a tunnel – all I can hear is heavy breathing, and not the stimulating kind.

I’d get a sudden burst, push it up a steep pitch, avoid the temptation to collapse in the dirt, and revel that I’d finally lost these phantom hikers. But oh no, there they are, and they’re passing me again. What the %*!?

Finally, I see the top of the mountain. At first I thought it was a mirage, but it was in fact the Sundeck, and the finish line. I see my photographer about 100 feet from the finish line. “Smile for the camera,” he says as I pass. I curse him under my breath.

Past the finish line a huge cooler of ice water and several boxes of pastries, cookies and muffins await the racers. But the line for the water looks long, so I crawl to the day lodge and the water in the cafeteria. Cup in hand, I head back down for a pastry, only to discover they’re all gone.

Just my luck, I figure, they were probably eaten by the hikers who left me choking on their dust.

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com

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